COVID-19's second curve, psychological effects

DR. C.J. DAVIS, president of Burrell Behavioral Health, shared an illustration of what mental health professionals call “the second curve” associated with the COVID-19 public health pandemic and its potential psychological consequences.

It’s called “caution fatigue,” and it seems as though we all have it.

Symptoms include anxious feelings, tiredness, a loss of motivation, and going onto your local newspaper’s Facebook page and leaving comments like, “Enough already!” or “This virus is fake!” underneath coverage of public health warnings associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. If that sounds familiar, take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone.

We’re tired of the virus, too. However, we can’t ignore it or ignore the warnings from the experts who have dedicated their careers to studying infectious diseases so that we can have a fighting chance against what might otherwise infect us by the thousands.

Overall, we did a fairly nice job of “flattening the curve,” but it doesn’t mean we can quit taking precautions to take care of ourselves and each other. That would be negligent, and we would also be lying to ourselves.

The first time you went swimming, shot fireworks or drove an automobile, you were cautious. You weren’t certain of this new experience, so you played it safe and acted with great care. Eventually, with some time and experience, your respect for the dangers of swimming, fireworks and automobiles waned. A few years, or even months removed from that first experience, you found yourself diving to see how deep you could go, firing Roman candles directly from your hand at anything that moved, and/or taking a turn just right on a gravel road to make the tail end of your car or truck slide.

We’ve reached that cavalier phase with COVID-19. Yes, there are only 37 people in Christian County who have had documented cases of the virus. There’s only so many cautionary tales you can stand until enough is enough.

Somewhere in the shuffle of newspaper pages, the din of the 10 o’clock news and the endless, mindless scroll of our Facebook news feed, we got tired of COVID-19 precautions.

How do we turn it around? How do we stay vigilant? How do we take care of ourselves and each other?

Empathy and gratitude.

Prior to the coronavirus reaching Missouri, our friend Dr. Pam Duitsman from the Christian County office of University of Missouri Extension taught us about gratitude in a column she wrote that was, at the time, tied to the Thanksgiving holiday. However, the science from that column didn’t die of COVID-19. It’s arguably more apt today.

“Practicing gratitude motivates positive behaviors that lead to self-improvement, such increasing connectedness and humility,” Duitsman wrote. “In three different studies, researchers described a mutually reinforcing relationship between humility and gratitude. One explanation is that gratitude is externally focused, and can foster humility — which is the outcome of focusing less on self — leading to an increased focus on others. Humility is described by researchers as a character strength, allowing one to have an accurate self-concept, without arrogance, and an appreciation of the strengths and worth of others. Practicing gratitude breeds humility.”

It all starts with taking stock of yourself, your behavioral health and your wellbeing. Admittedly, introspection is usually the last activity any of us want to do. But in times like these, it’s important to take care ourselves.

“It is important to take note of the positive things in life,” Duitsman wrote. “Even small things that one might normally take for granted, such as appreciation of other people, and of one’s own blessings.”

Burrell Behavioral Health president C.J. Davis explained what is known as the second curve, the mental health issues or even crises that Davis says will follow the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judging by what I’ve seen on Facebook lately, I think we’re ramping up the second curve.

“Living in COVID is sort of like if you had a fear of flying and you had to get on an airplane every single day,” Davis said, warning of a practice called catastrophic thinking, in which a person’s mind races through all possible negative outcomes. “The what-ifs, unfortunately, are truly endless in this particular environment.”

Davis recommends families reduce their screen time. Instead, put together puzzles, play or listen to music, draw or create art, read a book, or have some other structured downtime.

To look out for others, Davis recommends a practice abbreviate Q.P.R. — question, persuade and refer. Ask someone how they are doing, and get beyond a downplayed, “I’m fine,” persuade them to engage in mental health care if they need it, and then refer someone to a counselor or service provider.

In short, check in on each other. If something isn’t right, don’t be afraid to speak up. 

—Rance Burger

Burrell Behavioral Health: 1-800-494-7355 24-hour crisis line

(417) 761-5000 Schedule an appointment

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255, text 741741, or visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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